Three miles from the pristine beach of Dagara, Balasore there was a marquee setup outside a Government Upper Primary school. A similar setup had been placed in in Rajiv Gandhi SevaKendras, Community centers and Anganwadi centers at seven other locations in Baliapal and Basta blocks of Balasore. The crowd and the environment resembled the festivities of Durga puja and Ratha-yatra in the state of Orissa; but this time around for something yet unknown to the rural masses of Balasore. It was the first day of data collection training for the volunteers.

Information gathering is an integral part of a democratic country where policy decisions are supposed to be driven by mass consensus and by aggregation of people’s needs and demands.

The concept of village planning has been pre-existent since the formulation of the Indian Constitution. However, it has recently been provided an impetus through the central scheme of Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) and subsequently through separate state run programs like the “Amogao namo Yojana” of Orissa state that literally translates to – My village my plan.

Policy drives change and fosters innovation –the focus on bottom up planning has stirred the developmental sector and has led to innovations in the micro-planning paradigm. One such model was to be tested in Balasore. The inquisitive faces in the school tent weren’t just excited because they were looking forward to temporary employment for the next couple of months, but because they had heard about the technologically innovative nature of the project.

The micro-planning exercise involves data collection on tablets in partnership Tata Trusts and survey application designed by the collaboration of the policy and technology teams at Swaniti Initiative. The Swaniti team was looking forward to analyzing the data in the format that they envisaged. And so began the process where the policy researchers faced the ground realities and the arduous task of mass planning with thevolunteers accumulated by the National Organization Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS).

There lay several challenges in front of the team, starting from formulation of the questionnaire, designing the full stack application, testing the application performance on ground, and training the volunteers. Ranging from people who had never used anything more than a Radio to those who were adept with the economical smart phones that have penetrated the interiors of India – the challenge lied in bridging the knowledge gap and getting these volunteers on the same page before starting the actual data collection process.

The surveys in the app were divided into major sections. This would help us gauge the existing infrastructure and fund utilization, of each of the 580 villages across 49 Gram Panchayats in the two blocks of Basta and Baliapal in Balasore. The technology used was far more complex.

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The knowledge gap among the volunteers and the lack of stable internet connection in the interiors helped in stress-testing the application and strengthening the questionnaire coverage. There were a number of funny and genuine questions, such as, “Sir, how can we see that the data cloud has reached your office in Delhi” or, “What to choose as occupation for a beggar or pensioner”, which helped us test our limits of simplifying information.

While many of these questions could be brainstormed upon and answered, a number of discussions during the training session led to inclusion of new questions in the survey form and yet more sleepless night for technology team. A leading example being “Sir, for families who had Ration Card together and then split up but still divide their monthly ration – which household should the ration card belong to and how do we account for subsidized rations availed by both the families?”.

A brainteaser – isn’t it? More than just training these volunteers, we actually learnt a number of lessons from them and changed the front-end and the survey questionnaire accordingly.

All the questions across six surveys were discussed in detail through the course of five-day training process for each of these blocks the suggestions were incorporated in the application before the training reached its 5th day. Post these iterations, the volunteers hit the ground to do sample surveys in groups and test their understanding of the new technology along with their skill of asking questions in a way so as to get the desired answers.

The training period ended and the actual data collection process was about to start in the next three days. The tasks ahead for quite a bit. There were several sleepless nights but we were passionate about what we were doing and we continued headstrong.

This blog can go on about how the actual data collection advanced, however, that is a story for another blog post. Whilst the focus for the Swaniti team shifted to quality of data being received and its analysis, the survey coordinators faced difficult situations such as, Panchayats protesting the process, futile political clashes, households’ unwillingness to provide information and sometimes forceful over-willingness to provide information for neighbors who have long migrated to cities. On top of all this were the intra-volunteer weddings in between where tablets were captured for photography purposes. Oops, who could foresee that!

An amalgamation of e-Governance initiative and micro level planning, this exercise is just the beginning of an entire process through which demand centric developmental changes can be incorporated into the democratic setup of a nation.

We, at Swaniti, are fully committed to be the change we want to see and look forward to driving policy decisions based on micro-level based in other parts of the country as well.